• 9 Investigates: Local families struggling with no internet access

    By: Elsa Gillis

    Updated:

    MECKLENBURG COUNTY, N.C. - One night a week, a small group of parents gathers at a local elementary school as part of a special, six-week class.

    One of those parents is Lisa Cornell. She told Channel 9 she's taking the class for her son.

    She has a smartphone, but no home computer or internet, which presents serious challenges for her son, his school work and her own ability to function in today's world.

    "Sometimes, we have to go to the library, we have to ask people can you use their computer," Cornell said. "It can be real difficult and stressful."

    Their family is far from alone.

    It is estimated that 56,000 homes in Mecklenburg County -- more than 14 percent -- have no internet access at all. Another 7 percent have only mobile or dial-up service.

    [MAP: Home internet connection rates across U.S.]

    "Really, the west side, the north and the east really don't have a lot of connectivity," Lindsey Sipe told Channel 9.

    Beyond that, Sipe said fast internet access is just too expensive or not available for some families. She's part of the effort to change that.

    Participants in the Digital Inclusion Institute learn the basics of operating a computer, emailing and using the internet and Microsoft Office programs. When they graduate, they get their own laptop and Wi-Fi at no cost, all donated by community partners. Some of those include the Knight Foundation and Charles Thomas.

    [LINK: Learn more about the Digital Inclusion Institute here]

    For those families, it changes everything, because they no longer have to sit at a library or fast-food restaurant to fill out job applications or do homework.

    "It's not a good learning environment for anyone, let alone a child, and I think the impact that it has, that is also something we need to consider, how a child is thinking about themselves in that moment," Sipe told Channel 9.

    Parent Tonya Harden used to feel that struggle.

    "It's almost like it's a stigma. ‘What do you mean, you don't have a laptop?’ It's like you have to afford what you can afford," Harden said.

    She recently graduated from the course, which she told Channel 9 has allowed her to help her children and get a job. She now has plans to earn her master’s degree online.

    "I think technology and having connectivity to the internet and working devices really can be the great equalizer," Sipe said.

    [MORE INFORMATION: Charlotte's Digital Divide]

    "It helped me, I'm excited about my little laptop,” Harden told Channel 9. “I can stick it in my bag and just go on off. It has changed my life."

    So far, 95 people have graduated from the Digital Inclusion Institute. It's available to CMS parents in Project LIFT-Central 1 Learning Community, which is held at various schools.

    The goal, though, is to expand it further.

    There are other organizations working hard to bridge the digital gap, including the Charlotte Housing Authority, The Knight School at Queens University, Digital Charlotte and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg library system.

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